As far as professional musical tours go, it was a quick jaunt. In between main-stage sets at Coachella, M83, the French electronic group responsible for the smash hit ‘Midnight City,’ trucked up to Oakland to play The Fox Theater, headed back down to the Southern California desert for a second Coachella set the following Friday, and returned north once more for a show at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz.
M83’s Oakland gig was part of what SFGate dubbed ‘San Franchella’—a slate of Bay Area shows by artists also playing the iconic, two-weekend music festival in Indio, Calif. Readers were provided with a Google map of all the shows, the bulk of which could be seen blooming out of the center of San Francisco, with only a smattering in Oakland and a scant few in San Jose: pop singer Ellie Goulding made a stop at the Shark Tank, hip-hop artist Vince Staples opened up for Logic at the San Jose State Event Center, and DJ SoSuperSam booked a set at The Ritz.
Presented with this collection of concerts, South Bay music fans might wonder why there weren’t more ‘San Josella’ shows. Sure, San Jose doesn’t carry the name recognition of San Francisco. But as the home to Apple, Google, Facebook, Adobe and the inspiration for a wildly popular HBO comedy, Silicon Valley is known the world over. There are more than a million people living in San Jose alone, and there are certainly plenty of venues. The SAP Center can handle nearly 20,000 concertgoers, SJSU’s Event Center tops out at 5,000, and the City National Civic can fit a bit over 3,000. We also have smaller clubs, like Studio 8, with a capacity of 1,000; The Ritz holds 540; and BackBar SoFa can accommodate a cozy 120. That’s not even considering Pure Lounge in Sunnyvale, multiple venues on the Stanford campus or the Mountain Winery in Saratoga.
And yet time and again, touring musicians end up playing San Francisco—or Oakland or Berkeley—before heading south to Santa Cruz, north to Marin and Sonoma counties or leaving the state altogether, without giving San Jose so much as a wave out the window of the tour bus.
Bottom line, San Jose missed out on a ton of great shows this year.
While many theories abound about the city’s underdeveloped music scene, most everyone in the business agrees that a consistent stumbling block comes in the form of a music industry practice few outside live entertainment circles have even heard about—the ‘radius clause.’
It’s part of a pattern of old fashioned, antitrust-style behavior, used by baseball teams and big oil companies over the years to restrict the business growth of emerging competitors. Rather than letting the marketplace rule in a laissez faire fashion, one party improves its business position by preventing another entity from selling a product at a lower price or more convenient location. The bigger player, in this case San Francisco, uses its dominant position to lock out a nearby city from professional sports and entertainment options, thereby stunting its development.
The contractual exclusion of business activities over a wide swath of territory affects everything from local self esteem to the long distance branding of a destination, with accompanying economic ripple effects. ‘It’s the main hindrance to the South Bay music scene gaining any traction,’ Maxwell Borkenhagen, artistic director of Café Stritch, says of the written clauses and gentlemen’s agreements that venue owners and promoters make to protect their financial stakes in the concerts they produce.
It works like this: when a band books a show, the promoter asks the band to commit to not performing another show in close proximity, in both time and space, to the show they are booking with said promoter. In theory, this gives the promoter some assurance that the band won’t book a second gig nearby and split paying patrons over two shows.
Barbara Wahli, a local promoter of smaller rock, alternative and metal shows, says she has conflicting feelings when it comes to radius clauses.
‘I understand why they exist,’ says Wahli, noting that she never makes bands sign anything, but asks them to think strategically about booking other gigs in the runup to the shows she puts on. ‘I’ve had to enforce them myself on my own shows. Some bands play, like, twice a week—whenever and wherever they can.’
If a band she books to play at the X-Bar in Cupertino turns around and sets up another show just a few days prior at The Caravan—where there is rarely a cover charge—chances are high that she’ll lose out on paying customers, which will result in a lower profit margin for her. She may even end up losing money as a result.
Borkenhagen admits there are practical reasons for having radius agreements with acts. Still, he says, in practice it does more harm than good, as it forces bands to choose one venue over another, when in many instances they could play both without cutting into proceeds at either performance.
‘It’s a remnant of a time that’s long past,’ Borkenhagen says, ‘and I don’t think it represents the realities of the market in the Bay Area anymore. I think it’s basically unfair. It’s bad for the artists and it’s horrible for the overall Bay Area culture.’
According to several of the club owners and musicians who spoke to Metro for this story, promoters who put on shows—especially in San Francisco—often require bands to sign an agreement pledging not to play within a certain distance of a given club for at least 30 days before and after the date of their show. Sources agree that the industry standard radius in the Bay Area seems to be 60 miles, a fateful number considering that San Jose and San Francisco are just about 49 miles apart. With bigger shows, like Coachella, these radius clauses can cover hundreds of miles and extend months before and after the event.
Chris Ellul, the drummer for English indie rock and soul outfit The Heavy, played Coachella this year. And like M83, Ellul’s band also avoided San Jose—playing both San Francisco and Santa Cruz. It’s unlikely that the guys from M83 were concerned about skipping over the San Jose market. But when it comes to The Heavy passing over San Jose, Ellul says, radius clauses definitely played a role.
The Heavy have history here. The Blank Club, formerly run by Corey O’Brien, who now owns and operates The Ritz, hosted one of their very first headlining shows on the West Coast. What’s more, Ellul is married to Jen Chambers, a Morgan Hill native and the one-time singer for the now-disbanded local group Suicidal Barfly. Ellul and Chambers met at that 2010 Blank Club show, and the band played San Jose twice more in the ensuing years. Eventually, the couple celebrated their wedding with a small reception in the Blank Club’s upstairs green room.
‘I’m pissed off that we didn’t come and play in San Jose this time around,’ Ellul says, as he waits to play The Catalyst’s atrium stage on a recent Wednesday evening. It’s true that he has a soft-spot for the city where he met his wife and forged other relationships over the years. But there’s more to it than that.
Bands like M83 can reliably pack 800-capacity halls, like the Catalyst’s main room, so playing as many shows as possible isn’t as important as it is when you’re a band like The Heavy, Ellul says. The Heavy draw consistently—but more on the order of 200-300 a night. Because of this, being barred from playing San Jose means missing out on a paycheck and the opportunity to recruit some new fans.
‘I personally think—100 percent—that we could play in San Francisco, have a good crowd there, and then come to San Jose and play to the people that wouldn’t travel up to San Francisco,’ Ellul says, noting that, by his calculation, somewhere around 150 San Jose residents didn’t come to see his band play in San Francisco.
‘That’s just friends and friends of friends. That’s not even including people who just know our music,’ he notes. ‘San Jose is such a big city in itself. These places have got their own populations. There’s enough to go around, if you know what I mean. There was probably room for us to do San Jose, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. It just doesn’t make any sense.’
Eric Victorino, frontman of Strata and The Limousines, calls the radius clause ‘a huge problem.’
It’s kind of brutal,’ the singer says, remembering a Strata tour with Trapt, Helmet and Chevelle. Victorino’s band had booked close to three months of dates, with almost no days off. When they did have downtime, Strata often took the initiative to seek out an off-tour show in order to make a little extra gas money—even if they ate up much of that extra cash backtracking or peeling off from the most optimal tour route in order to abide by the radius clause.
Some sources suggested that Goldenvoice, the promoter behind Coachella, expanded that festival’s 2016 radius clause to reach all the way up to the Bay Area. An examination of local shows in the weeks surrounding Coachella suggest that is not true. But the fact that these rumors were floating around is indicative of the distrust smaller, independent venues and promoters have of the major players in the live music industry.
‘It’s not just Coachella—it’s this huge corporate chain that is taking over all aspects of the music industry,’ observes The Ritz’s Kyle Gilmore. ‘They are using the radius clauses to solidify their places in the market.’
Goldenvoice is part of AEG Live, which along with Live Nation, controls around 70 percent of all concert ticket sales in the U.S., according to Billboard. These major promoters tend to be behind some of the biggest summer festivals, which are known to have aggressive and far-reaching radius clauses. Coachella’s, for example, covers a sizeable chunk of Southern California and even reaches into Nevada.
According to a Mic.com story from 2014, the massive Chicago music festival Lollapalooza prevented a handful of major Midwestern cities from booking acts for six months before the festival and three months after it. Lollapalooza’s radius clause extended out 300 miles from The Windy City, meaning venues in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Detroit were blocked from booking many of the same artists who played the alt music festival.